February 24, 2004

Physician assistant graduates earn top scores

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. - Score another achievement for the physician assistant program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

All 24 recent program graduates passed last fall's NCCPA (National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants) national certification exam. The 100 percent pass rate far exceeds the national average passing rate of 83 percent. In the area of first-time test takers, SIUC graduates scored in the 99th percentile, far above the national average, which was in the 54th percentile.

Paul D. Sarvela, the interim dean of the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, said the results reflect the quality of the program.

It says, No. 1, that we have an outstanding program," he said. "Our faculty are fantastic, our curriculum is right on target and we have great students."

The physician assistant program is in its seventh year. To graduate, students complete seven semesters in 26 months. There are currently two classes with 24 students apiece.

I am so excited and so happy for our students and our graduates," said Laurie R. Dunn, the program's interim director. "I think it reflects the quality of our program and reflects positively on problem-based learning."

To practice as a physician assistant in the United States, students must graduate from a nationally accredited program and then pass the NCCPA exam. The NCCPA is the only certification body for physician assistants, and has representation on its board from various physician-constituent groups, including family practitioners and surgeons.

SIUC's program scored above the national average in all areas of the exam, which included such areas as renal, endocrine, psychiatry, infectious diseases, cardiovascular medicine, pharmacology and physical examination skills. There were 137 programs, including SIUC, represented in the testing, she said.

University officials learned of the achievement Monday, Dunn said. This is the third time in five testing cycles that SIUC achieved a perfect passing rate. Approximately 105 students have received their certification as physician assistants upon completing the program at SIUC.

About 75 percent of graduating students return to rural and underserved areas in Illinois.

Providing medical care to people in rural areas is one of our missions so we try to recruit from those areas," she said.

Promoting excellence in educational programs and serving others is among the goals of Southern@ 150, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Dunn sees various reasons for the program's success.

I think it is the contributions of a dedicated and excellent faculty, and students who are motivated by learning and by serving their patients," said Dunn. "And I really do believe it is due to the problem-based learning."

The program is one of the few nationally that offers a problem-based learning curriculum, which focuses on utilizing specific patient case studies as opposed to an emphasis on lectures and textbooks.

In the program, students are divided into groups of six for one faculty member and work on actual patient cases. Students work the cases by interviewing and examining the patients, and performing tests and diagnostic analyses on them. In some instances, patients are presented on paper, as computer cases, or in simulated cases using actors.

Students learn primarily based on the cases, said Dunn. They also do research, and then return to their groups and teach each other about the learning issues they identified, she said. This integrated way of learning has students analyzing scenarios and applying their knowledge.

Problem-based learning "is a fantastic approach and we truly are leaders in that method of learning," Sarvela said. "Our students' test scores bear this out; that this is a superb way of teaching people."

The program last year received accreditation with no citations for another seven years from ARC-PA (Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant), the national accrediting agency that defines standards for physician assistant education and evaluates physician assistant educational programs in the United States.

For more information on the program, contact interim director Laurie R. Dunn at 618/453-1173.